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We have to be careful how we position African novels, that we don’t make claims for the African novel that it does not make for itself.

So when someone comes to you looking for a novel that represents Africa or African life, say you can’t help.

A novel is not an anthropological document, meaning that it can only give a peep into life through a very, very, very narrow frame. That’s why it’s dangerous to get into the habit of thinking of novels as expressive of truth and reality.

I remember an American student asking, after reading Things Fall Apart, whether human sacrifice was a thing in Africa. Now imagine your first American novel were American Psycho, would you ever think to ask an American if most American men were prone to a similar kind of psychosis?

From years of studying British and African novels, I find that people make demands on African novels that they don’t make on other kinds of novels. Whether realist or fantasy, African novels are required to offer direct access to Africa’s way of life.

The truth is that no matter how true-to-life, how history-based a novel such as Things Fall Apart might be, it is first and foremost a fictional work. Things Fall Apart is a fictional representation of life. It is not life. It is not a document on how African fathers kill their foster children. It is not a document on how polygamous marriages work. It is not a document on why Igbo men love yams so much. It is not a document on late 19th century Igbo laws and customs. It is a story.

There is nothing more unattractive and annoying than a naive novel-reader, someone who believes everything they read in novels, who can’t seem to come to terms with the fact that novels tell us very little about real life, even when they claim to do so.

But isn’t this a question as old as Aristotle—the question of how life relates to fiction? Since Aristotle, European philosophers and novelists have written themselves to death about how much of life can be captured in art. The sad thing is that today, Africa bears the burden of the most simplistic understanding of that link between art and life. So many readers go about expecting African novels to tell them a political and anthropological fact about African life.

To be fair, there is a certain sense in which every novel whispers something to us about a real world out there. But you have to love the novel for itself first before you can hear what it says or does not say about that world.

So never encourage anyone to expect an African novel to tell them the truth about Africa and its people. It is far too much to ask a novel. And people who put such a burden on a novel are being lazy, small-minded, and sorta cheap.

If you really want to learn about Lagos, get a plan ticket.


Post image by Robin Alasdair Frederick H via Flickr

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I hold a doctorate in English from Duke University and recently joined the Marquette University English faculty as an Assistant Professor. I love teaching African fiction and contemporary British novels. Brittle Paper is the virtual space/station where I play and experiment with ideas on how to reinvent African fiction and literary culture.

7 Responses to “African Novels are Not Anthropological Documents” Subscribe

  1. Kiru Taye 2015/01/12 at 15:52 #

    Girl, you said it! I love this post because I get so infuriated when people translate fiction to become fact especially where it relates to Africa.

  2. Nambozo 2015/01/13 at 06:32 #

    Dear Robin, what a timely post, explaining what many are feeling. I, personally however do pick books because I know while they provide entertainment, a large aspect of anthropological facts come my way. I don’t find anything particularly wrong with that because readers select books for various reasons and fiction offers so much more than what many of us may think. I appreciate the challenge because books from Africa are often categorised in a miniscule way but fiction serves many purposes. There are books like Half of a Yellow Sun, Kintu, Nairobi Heat and The Madams, that in their own way, offer insight into conditions of Africans in particular times and spaces and could be used for anthropological debate. We can never decide what a reader will do with our words.
    The topic though is very timely and I look forward to hearing many views because mine is just one of them.

  3. topaz 2015/01/13 at 11:21 #

    I agree with your views. Fiction though based on real people and society, offer only a glimpse of the real world and through the eyes of the writer! It contains the writer’s perspective, prejudices and bias. At best, it is only a small part of a much larger whole…

    If you ask me, the pressure on African novels is due to a deep seated negative bias and prejudice against Africa. And those looking for answers through African novels are lazy and are really looking for anything, no matter the weight of the evidence, that will reinforce their preconceptions.

  4. Nginyo 2015/01/14 at 00:27 #

    I beg to differ with the sentiments of the author of the post. To quote one of my favourite authors: “A good novel is
    worth more than the best
    scientific study.” —Saul Bellow. Of course a novel may have more functions than one depending on the genre.

    But if written with a certain degree of diligence then a novel might shed a stronger light on the anthropological ways of a community than a work of non-fiction.

    Where non-fiction is a fossil, fiction is a real life specimen.

  5. Majnun Ben-David 2015/01/14 at 00:55 #

    I think there is a purely practical problem with the idea that an African novel can tell you the “truth” about Africa. Namely, Africa is a massive continent encompassing incredible diversity in languages, cultures, landscapes, religions, etc. I’m sure you know this. But your post compares African novels with American and British ones. The latter two are, of course, single countries. While neither are homogenous by any stretch, they are also not nearly as diverse as the entire continent of Africa.
    In fact, I would question whether the label “an African novel” has any meaning. What do Egyptian, Ethiopian, Nigerian, and South African authors (to pick just four countries) have in common? Yes, they share the same continent, but so do Norway, Italy, Turkey, and Russia, and yet I doubt anyone would lump them together as just “European” novels.

  6. Christopher 2015/01/14 at 04:06 #

    I suppose the problem here is not so much that African novels are interpreted as African realities. On fact, I see nothing wrong with that. A good novel aims to make a statement. It gives you some food for thought. It tells a story though with no obligation to ensure it actually happened.

    The problem here is that people are so keen to stereotype Africans. It happens not just from novels but from real life too. Just because a few Black people have been involved in some crimes, all other Black people become suspects. Just because an African novel has sceneries of human sacrifice relates it to African societies. In every nation, there are murderers, thieves. swindlers etc.

  7. Don Handa 2015/05/04 at 16:16 #

    This rings so true. I think the problem is even worse when Africans themselves fall into this trap, and start going on about how a book has really captured the African experience. novels an, and do, tell us about real life, and people. However, the perspective presented in a book is just one if limitless possible ones, and should not be read as an authority.

    There is a tendency to assign an unwarranted preciousness to works of African literature. Every scenario is somehow exemplary of a certain reality; any unpleasantness is simply a result or a reaction to a history of oppression; instances if love, understanding, compassion etc, are stark contrasts to the harsh realities of poverty, suffering, war, and so forth. It is common for people to fail ti complicate works of African literature, to resort to the same set of cliches when discussing them, and I think that this is part of the problem you describe. Written African literatures have continued to grow in leaps and bounds, scaling heights within the past 80 years or so what its counterparts in Europe, for example, have taken centuries to reach – african literature is as diverse, as multifaceted, as complicated, as bountiful, as Africa itself. the least we can do is acknowledge that.

    Also, the American Psycho question was a nice touch. I once had a lecturer respond to a similar question about circumcission in Wa Thiongó’s The River Between, but he used Lolita.

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